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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Layer Cake

I saw Layer Cake in the theater, probably because I loved Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and so I was excited for another British crime flick, and because the great Colm Meaney (who I had grown to love because of his years portraying Miles Edward O’Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) was in it.  I remember absolutely loving the film, right up to the final minute, which I absolutely hated.  Hated!  The ending totally soured me on the movie.  For quite a while now, particularly after becoming more of a fan of director Matthew Vaughn, I have been wanting to revisit the film to see what I would think of it on a second viewing.  I am pleased that I loved the first 99% of the movie just as much as I did when I first saw it back in 2006. As for the ending?  Well, I’ll get to that in a moment.

Daniel Craig plays a smart, calm British drug dealer.  He’s fairly low-level in the larger scheme of things, but because he is clever, patient, and risk-averse, he has managed to thrive and to build a fortune.  He is ready to get out of the business, but his boss, Jimmy Price, asks him to do him a small favor: find the missing daughter of a fellow crime-boss, Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon).  Meanwhile, a shipment of ecstacy has been stolen from a Serbian drug lord, who has sent an assassin to kill the thieves and return the drugs.  These two events will soon collide, with Daniel Craig’s character stuck right in the middle, forced to bloody his knuckles and to use every ounce of his cleverness to try to navigate the conflicting goals of all of the violent criminals surrounding him in order to get away with his head intact.

Layer Cake is a ferociously entertaining, complex, twisty crime caper.  It’s far more serious than the jokey Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, though there are a few moments of humor in the film.  Layer Cake is a complicated story of double and triple crosses, as a large cast of characters collide, each competing with one another for wealth and power.  The film was written by J.J. Connolly, adapting his own novel, and I love how incredibly dense the film’s story is, daring the audience to keep up with the layers upon layers of twists and turns.

I first became aware of Daniel Craig when I saw his riveting supporting role in Road to Perdition (a vastly underrated movie that I should write more about one of these days).  Layer Cake was Mr. Craig’s first big lead role, and he is absolutely spectacular.  This was a big, big announcement of a major movie-star presence, and it’s clear to me that Layer Cake is the reason why Mr. Craig was cast as James Bond.  But what’s great about Layer Cake is that Mr. Craig’s character (who is never given a name, something I didn’t realize until it was pointed out to the audience at the very end of the film) is not James Bond.  He is smart, and he is tough, but he is not a super-man.  When he gets beat up (and he does), he bleeds and he suffers.  It’s clear from early on that he is in way over his head, but the character is endearing because he doesn’t give up, instead using his brains to figure out a way forward.

The film’s terrific ensemble cast is ferociously good.  The aforementioned Colm Meaney is fantastic as Gene.  Gene is one step up the food chain above Daniel Craig’s character, but the two are close enough that they can be friends and drinking buddies.  But Gene is tough and dangerous, and his loyalty to Daniel Craig’s character will stretch only to the point that Gene feels he can benefit from their association.  I absolutely love Colm Meaney’s performance in this film.  He’s a friendly figure, but you can never quite be sure that he is to be trusted.  Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films) is terrific as the posh, top dog in the London drug world.  Mr. Gambon is so great to watch.  His monologue to Daniel Craig, late in the film, after a brutal double-cross, is spectacular.  Tom Hardy (who would go on to greatness in films like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises) has a small role as one of Daniel Craig’s men, as does Ben Whishaw (the new Q in Skyfall) as a spoiled kid, wealthy from his family’s drug money.  George Harris (Captain Katanga from Raiders of the Lost Ark!) is really great as Morty, Daniel Craig’s tough, no-nonsense partner, and it was fun to see Lock, Stock’s Jason Flemyng pop up.  Sienna Miller has a very small role, displaying great beauty though she doesn’t really have much acting to do.  (Despite her almost comical prominence on the film’s poster and DVD art, she is only in the film for a few minutes.)

Layer Cake was the first film directed by Matthew Vaughn, and perhaps even more than it was for Daniel Craig, the film served as an announcement that a major new talent had arrived.  The film is extraordinarily well-directed, filled with clever shots (I particularly love the moment when the camera gives us a view up from the floor through a glass coffee-table at Daniel Craig and Colm Meaney, who are sharing a drink) and energetic camera-work.  Most of all, I was impressed by how well Mr. Vaughn handled the film’s complex plot.  Mr. Vaughn keeps our attention focused as the film bounces from location to location and from character to character.  He keeps the intensity alive even through all of the dialogue scenes, and while the film is complicated, it never collapses under the weight of the intricate story.  Just consider, for a moment, the film’s amazing first ten minutes.  This introductory sequence is thick with detail, as we are thrown head-first into Daniel Craig’s character’s world and introduced to a dizzying array of characters and situations, while also being given a history of the entire drug trade in Britain.  This could have been a boring, expository mess, but in Mr. Vaughn’s hands the sequence crackles, becoming a fun, fast-paced, superlative beginning to the movie.

I was also intrigued — and here, credit probably goes to both Mr. Vaughn and author J.J. Connolly — by the aspects of social commentary that make Layer Cake just a little bit deeper and richer than your average crime film.  Now, don’t get me wrong, Layer Cake is a crime film, through and through.  But I was interested to see a few instances in which we are given some commentary on the drug world as it exists in London.  In the film’s fantastic introduction, which I was just praising, we are given a condensed history of the drug trade in Britain, and then we watch as Mr. Craig’s character postulates a world, not too far off, in which drugs will be legal.  In a really clever special-effects shot, we see a FCUK store transformed into a high-end establishment that, rather than selling expensive clothes, sells all manner of narcotics to those who can afford them.  Is it so hard to imagine that this could be reality, someday?  Later in the film, a character refers to the current illegal status of drugs as “prohibition.”  One might agree or disagree that the current illegality of drugs is comparable to the temporary illegality of liquor in the United States, but it’s an interesting point to make, and, again, is it so hard to imagine that one day these forbidden drugs will be legal and easily available in stores?  This question lends an interesting extra layer of subtext to the actions and adventures of the drug-dealers that we will follow over the course of the movie.

And now, I must discuss the ending.  SPOILERS AHEAD gang, obviously.

The first time I saw Layer Cake, I was 100% engaged with the film right from the beginning and all the way through.  I was really loving the film.  Then came Daniel Craig’s last line, acknowledging that we didn’t even know his name, and I thought that was such a perfect, clever way to end the movie.  Then Ben Whishaw’s character comes up and shoots him.  Then the movie ends.  I was really upset by that ending.  I can sort of understand the filmmakers trying to make a point about the violence of the drug trade — that even someone as clever as Daniel Craig’s character could be undone with a bullet at any moment, and that while we had been rooting for Daniel Craig’s character throughout the whole film, he was, in the end, a drug dealer and a criminal.  But as someone who HAD been rooting for Daniel Craig’s character throughout the whole film, I thought that ending was a total slap in the face to me, the audience member.  It was as if everything we’d been watching was worthless.  It was all for naught, because despite everything, Daniel Craig’s character didn’t survive, he got killed at the end.  And not in some sort of poignant, tragic way.  Just in a brutal, meaningless way.  It totally soured the movie for me.  Despite how much I had enjoyed everything that came before, it totally ruined the whole experience of watching the movie for me.

Seeing the movie again, now, obviously I knew that ending was coming.  Without the tremendous shock value, I didn’t feel this time that the ending ruined the movie.  I still enjoyed re-watching the film, and this time I understood that it was Ben Whishaw’s character shooting Daniel Craig’s character (I don’t think I even recognized that’s who that was, when I first saw the film), and that he did it because Daniel Craig had stolen his girl (Sienna Miller).  But I still think the ending is poorly conceived, a huge mis-step at the end of the film.  Whatever shock value the surprise ending has, it does a tremendous disservice to the high-quality movie that had preceded it.  Had Layer Cake ended with Daniel Craig’s last line, about our not knowing his real name, I would judge the film to be a true classic.  As it is, it is a very entertaining crime film that falls short of greatness.

Layer Cake was the promise of great things from both Daniel Craig and Matthew Vaughn.  It’s fun to look back and see where things began for these two men.  I hope that they someday collaborate again.  Though I still hate the ending, Layer Cake is a really solid film, a terrific crime story and a very entertaining two hours.

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